Dead Heat

Peter Cotton

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I jerked in a stuttering breath. And exhaled. I jerked in another breath and exhaled again. I was lying on my back, looking up at the biggest sky I’d ever seen. Stars everywhere. Clouds of them. And lots of single ones. Big and small. All of them twinkling, like the song said.

I felt for my goggles. They hung from my helmet by a single clasp. I rolled onto my left side and tried to push myself up, but a shock of pain in my right shoulder sent me back to the ground. I lay there and worked to relax myself. I slowed my breathing and tried to absorb the pain.

I rolled onto my right side and pushed up to a kneeling position. A breeze played across my face. Some sort of insect click-clicked nearby. I reattached the goggles to my helmet, lowered the eyelets, and switched the unit to infra-red. I was immediately immersed in a black-and-white world of waving spinifex and low shrubs. I instinctively felt for my Glock. It was still there, thank God.

Hot metal crackled nearby — the bike’s fins and exhaust pipes were cooling off in the night air. The undertone of the desert registered just below the crackle. An almost subliminal white noise. I tuned in and searched the soundscape for anything mechanical, but heard nothing like it.

I probed my injured shoulder. The thing hadn’t popped, but it was very tender, front and back. I was shaking, and I felt strangely ethereal. Mild shock. I’d got off lightly though. Very lightly compared to Coombs and Bain.

I stood up gingerly and shuffled through the scrub to the highway. I stood in the middle of the blacktop and looked left, then right, and left again. And it suddenly occurred to me: I didn’t know which way I’d come from — the place where we’d been hit by the bikies — or the direction I’d been going when I ran over the wallaby. I had no sense of east or west. I looked up at the stars, but that was pointless. I didn’t know how to read them. My mind went blank, and through the void came a surge of panic.

Then I remembered the escarpment. I swung around, and there it was — the brooding wall of rock that had appeared north of the highway just after we’d set out. I switched my goggles to thermal mode, turned to what I assumed would be the west, and sighed with relief.

About fifteen metres away, a jagged trail of radiance marked where the bike had veered off the blacktop, ploughed through the soft surface at the side of the road, and headed into the bush. Ten metres beyond the roadside radiance, a dull glow in the middle of the blacktop marked the position of the hapless wallaby.

Then my sense of relief was swamped by a disturbing realisation: my initial inability to establish my bearings meant that being knocked out had affected my thinking to a degree. This was a very bad time to be muddled, and I’d have to be even more careful with the immediate decisions I made and the actions I took.

I stumbled up to where the bike had left the road and followed the radiant trail into the bush through low scrub and around tufts of spinifex. The crackling of the cooling fins on the bike’s engine block became louder the further in I went.

The glow of the bike registered first, and slowly resolved into an image of the machine itself. It’d been stopped by a small tree with a fat trunk. It was hard to say which had come off worse. The tree was uprooted in a terminal way, while the collision had rendered the bike unrideable — its forks were bent, and the front wheel was completely buckled. I squatted and moved my hand around just above the engine block. The air coming off it was red-hot, a sure sign that I hadn’t been unconscious for very long.

I was staring at the disabled machine when I caught a note on the breeze. The base note of an internal-combustion engine — more than one. It snapped me from my torpor. I stood, statue-like, for thirty seconds, till I established the hum was coming from the west. Was it the same group of hostiles who’d attacked us, or another group? Or had the military sent a rescue party in response to Coombs’s mayday call? I had no way of knowing, so I had to prepare for either eventuality. I squatted next to the bike, switched my goggles to infra-red and emptied the pannier bags onto the ground. I transferred the food and bottles of water, plus a box of ammunition, to my backpack.

Then I set about masking the bike’s thermal imprint. I shook out the blanket and the sleeping bag, folded them both in half and layered them over the bike. I placed dead branches and other debris on top and stepped back and switched my goggles to thermal. The edges of the pile still had a slight glow, but it was too far from the road to be easily seen, even by someone wearing goggles like mine, and especially if that someone was speeding past.

Just to be sure, I took a bottle of water from my backpack and began dousing every bit of radiance in sight, starting with the pile I’d created, and following the radiant trail back through the spinifex all the way to the road. It took three bottles to do the job, but the water proved to be a very effective eraser.

A glowing dot appeared in the far distance. Another one popped into view. And another. These guys weren’t riding dark, so they were probably bandits, and maybe the survivors from the group that’d hit us. But, despite the headlights, one or more of them could be wearing goggles with a thermal capacity like mine, so I still had to kill all evidence of my presence.

Dead Heat Peter Cotton